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Climate Change and Terrorism

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFebruary 18, 2015 7:30 PM


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Last month, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Nature published a Q & A with an anthropologist who studies the murderous motivations of Islamic extremists. He discussed socio-cultural factors and an allure to a radical ideology. That may help explain Islamic attacks against "infidels" in Europe and the United States, but then what's driving suicide bombers in Somalia, Pakistan, and Iraq where it's Muslims killing Muslims? Is there a common denominator? On Twitter, Jeff Goodell points suggestively to his current story at Rolling Stone magazine.

You can't talk about "root causes" of terrorism without talking about climate change. via @rollingstone — Jeff Goodell (@jeffgoodell) February 17, 2015

I took the bait. It turns out that Goodell doesn't talk about a terrorism/climate change nexus. His piece is largely about the Pentagon taking climate change seriously (a storycirculating since October), while hawkish Republicans are not. So this puts the GOP and the U.S. military in opposition on a national security issue. It's an interesting tension, for sure, and a story that has been developing since the late 2000s. Now, the closest Goodell gets to discussing a connection between global warming and terrorism is when he links the Arab Spring, Syria's civil war and the rise of Nigeria's Boko Haram to climate change-fueled drought. But such cause and effect, in each case, is either problematic or dubious, depending on your frame of mind. I should say at this point that I agree climate change is a "threat multiplier" in strife-riven, poorly governed countries. But a root cause of terrorism? Or a main factor in Syria's unraveling? Not seeing that. Still, it's all part of a complex debate, one I've been following with great interest since 2009. On a related note, President Obama generated headlines last week when he suggested that climate change was a greater threat than terrorism. Around the same time he said this, the White House issued its 2015 National Security strategy. On page 11:

No threat poses as grave a danger to our security and well-being as the potential use of nuclear weapons and materials by irresponsible states or terrorists.

The next page:

Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water.

Both threats are real, but only one of them sometimes keeps me awake at night.

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